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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mid-term Exams: time to leave them behind

It's that time of year again already.  The school year is just about half way over and the semester is drawing to a close. That means mid-term examinations are on the way.  Some recent comments from my colleagues have me thinking about them a bit more than usual, and, as a result, I have some questions about the whole mid-term concept.

Why do we have mid-term exams? Because that's what we do half-way through the year.  Not a satisfying answer, is it? The idea of inertia is the worst possible reason for doing anything, in school and in life.  This isn't overtly true in my department, but, if I'm being honest, it is an underlying reason, because doing something new means doing work, and change is hard for many teachers to embrace...So that aside, what are some of the other reasons given for having mid-term exams?

Because we need to see what the students have learned so far. Ah, ok, that I can work with.  We are giving these tests to check up on the learning that has gone on in the classroom thus far.  Exams are there to see what the students know.  And when they don't know the material, do we go back and re-teach it? Cycle around to ensure that the content is embedded in the memory banks and skills are fully mastered? I'll go out on a limb and say no.  I'd also go further out on a limb and say that most teachers don't take any data from the exam at all, because I need the exams to be easy to grade, says a colleague. (Do you hear sawing? This limb is vibrating...)  Hence, multiple choice has ruled the day in my, and most, departments. And even though this style of test lends itself to statistical analysis, we don't take the time to go back over the results to see what, if any, patterns exist in the student's knowledge. Thus rendering the exams useless as a re-teaching tool. And such exams only check content knowledge, not skill mastery, so they only take care of half of the teaching puzzle.

To be fair, there is no time built into the exam time-frame for teachers to make a thoughtful analysis of whatever data they've accumulated, reflect upon it, and then make necessary adjustments. We have two exams a day for four days, with a make up period for students who missed it.  Exams then have to be graded and overall marks calculated and commented on simultaneously with returning to the classroom and continuing on with instruction.  We are changing this daily schedule somewhat this year, which should facilitate faster grading in some ways, but the nearly instant return to instruction combined with a seemingly endless list of standards to cover means that re-teaching is at best a momentary activity, and at worst, not even thought about. So, the exams don't serve the purpose of uncovering what students have missed thus far very well.

Because we need to give them the experience of taking a cumulative exam so they get prepared for college.  You mean we need to do this in every class, for every student, two times a year for four years?  In my school, that means a graduating senior would have taken over 50 summative examinations during his or her high school career, all to make ready for that first final exam in college? Seems like overkill.  Though to hear it from my former students who are now home from college: "Those exams were the hardest I've ever taken," says one. "Nothing in high school prepared me for that," says another.  So something isn't connecting. I'm going to say it is format, for no returning student has ever said their collegiate exams in the social sciences included multiple choice.  My undergraduate experience didn't include those either. Exams were essay and short answer based, and hit on higher order thinking skills, not regurgitation of material. (The root of my beef with the College Board's curriculum--spend the whole year prepping for an exam the likes of which doesn't exist at the level the course purports to recreate.) As a result, I don't think we are actually preparing students to articulate their understanding of material in ways that resonate with the collegiate level.  In 50+ tries. Over 4 years. So mid-term exams don't serve that purpose well either.

Because assessment of student performance will be part of teacher evaluation, says the deal cut by my state in order to get Race to the Top money. So the exams are for the teachers, and the determination of the quality of their performance. Which means that we need to design exams (mid-term and finals) that contain common standards of teaching excellence, that can be measured, quantified, and compiled, so they can be useful in conversations with teachers about their practice, and that can promote conversations between teachers and supervisors about how they need to improve. And they must be based around the content and skills of the course curriculum that is taught. Uh huh.

Leaving aside questions of who will design such assessments (ah, ah, ah, bureaucrats! Sorry, had to sneeze...) the need for quantifiable data points will not relieve the pressures of assessing students through multiple choice-style exams. So we run the risk of being stuck with a practice and a format that doesn't lend itself either to re-teaching or to collegiate preparation, while turning teacher evaluation into a statistical exercise.

If we must give mid-term examinations, it is time to abandon the old way of doing them. I believe we need to articulate the standards of course content, grade-level skill, and teaching practice, then have students submit work in a portfolio comprised of both work done earlier in the term and in a timed writing (or other activity that doesn't involve scantron) at the end of the term. We can use the technology we have not only to have students store their material digitally, but also to design a systematized way of reviewing the material. Instead of a multiple choice exam, let's have the students discuss their work thus far with the all the teachers of the subject in the department, who then ask questions designed to delve into the students' knowledge of the content and to reveal their mastery of skills. (This doesn't have to be face-to-face (though it could be through a dissertation style defense format); again, technology can make this easier, either through video recordings, emailed responses, or google form completion to name a few methods) Regardless, the content mastery needs to become secondary to the mastery of the skills. 

Then, based on the student's responses, the timed writing and the portfolio, the teachers can know what skills to cycle back to in the second half of the course, and what content to reiterate.  The portfolios and the rest can then serve as the primary discussion points for the discussions of teacher performance, and actual student work, not percentages and statistical analysis can stand as testimony to the teacher's success or struggles in the classroom. Yes, time will be needed for this to happen, but it would be worthwhile time spent if it actually helped to prepare students for the collegiate environment (if that is in fact the goal of high school...), and reveal what is working and what is not working within each teacher's classrooms. And mid-terms would stop being meaningless examinations and become meaningful assessments...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thoughts about how students learn in the 21st century

This is probably not news, and likely others have articulated it, but I think there is a key difference in the way that digital natives (thank you Marc Prensky for the lable!) learn in a classroom from the way that I was expected to learn in the classroom, and with the addition of technology, this difference becomes more distinct.

When I was a student, teachers presented material in a sequence. First A, then B, then C.  I was then asked to analyze why A came first, B second, and C third.  That was the depth of thought I was expected to master; rarely was I asked to synthesize a D that might happen next, but that would be the logical next step in the maturation of a thinker: to get to a hypothetical outcome and rationalize its existential prospects.  Learning was a sequential pattern of cause and effect paired with analytic and synthetic thought processes.  But school was about the teacher controlling the sequence and the time.  The teacher determined what was taught and when and in what order based on his or her logical understanding of the material.  Textbooks are organized the same way.  Regardless of the authors' intent to highlight thematic recurrance of historical events, or causality, textbooks fall back onto chronological progression.  Within the theme of, say, social justice in America, textbooks will always talk about Nat Turner before John Brown before carpetbaggers and sharecroppers before Jim Crow, before Plessey before Brown before MLK. I've not seen one mix this order up, which is too bad...

The difficulty faced by teachers confronted with digital natives is that little in their life is sequential.  The traditional classroom expectation is that students will be able to sit still and focus on one series of sequences delivered by the teacher in a class period. But they are wired to be what we older folks would call "distracted," but I'll call "tangential."  They have the ability to follow a tangential thought, then cycle around to their original topic.  So for instance, in my classroom of iPad equipped juniors, we can be discussing the role of the manor system in the early middle ages of European development. I actually do this through playing a game that simulates life on the manor and how it grows into a kingdom... In the course of that game, which allows for a sequential growth, students have free time while other teams take their turns. In those gaps, I've seen students go to Words With Friends, because the word "manor" might work. or "serf," or any of the other vocabulary words that come up in this game. They check Twitter, they look at facebook, and on either post their progress in the game, maybe talk a little trash, maybe ask some questions.  Then they look at their English class blog to see how the readings from Beowolf might connect to life at that time. They then return to the conversation, make their moves, discuss their outcomes, explain their reasoning, then the game moves along.  Playing the game and discussing the manor system causes them to make other connections to other parts of their life, "leaving" the classroom as they follow their tangents, and ideally bringing a deeper understanding of the material.

Now I'm not naive enough to actually think that this is going on for all my students all the time.  Some are not fully engaged with the game, or the concept of the manor system, and drop in and out. Some are tweeting in ways that have no relevance at all to the material.  Some are doing homework for another class.  But I am naive enough to think that this all evens out in the end.  Rather than think of this day in isolation, I think of the course as a whole.  I tell them at the beginning of the year that there is something for everyone in this class (AP World History) but that doesn't happen everyday.  So there will be days when I lose some students for a time, and days when I keep some students for a time, and I'm ok with that, because I know no successful adults who are perfectly engaged with every aspect of their lives every day.

But to return to my point, I'm having to shift my expectations for what is a "good" student.  In my experience as a student, teachers yelled at students who were doodling, who were "disengaged", having side conversations (even if they were about the material); silence and attentiveness were golden, even if the minds behind the attentive eyes were blank.  I have to acknowledge that students are capable of following a tangential thought and returning to the "main focus" of the class, and hopefully are gaining a more complete application of the material in the rest of their lives. So I adjust to understand that what they are doing isn't necessarily "off topic" behavior.  It isn't that they are being rude, or disrespectful. They aren't necessarily bored or "distracted" in the traditional sense.  They are seeking to make meaning of the material, connect it to the rest of their lives, and thus embed it.
So, I can adjust my teaching to incentivize this behavior. Offer extra points for using relevant vocabulary words in their online games, set up my tweet deck to register #manorgame tweets and credit students for doing this. I can follow their English teacher's blog or Twitter feed so I can pull in references to the novels they read and create an Edmodo or Facebook group to allow for a cross-discipline discussion that can't happen in the "real" world because of the limitations of our brick and mortar, 19th century schedule.

School for teachers is becoming Darwinian. Teachers have to adapt or die off.  Adaptation is hard for me and requires a new way of thinking about the use of my 45 minutes when we are together as a group.  But the choice is to do this and acknowledge the differences between the way I was trained to view school, or try to bend 25 individuals to my way, my older way, my linear way, my incompatible with the 21st century living way.

Seems like a no-brainer to me...